Abortion and Morality

Abortion and Morality
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A sign held outside the Kentucky capitol building in Frankfort at the Rally for Reproductive Rights in 2013.

Recently a candidate for the US presidency made some horrifically ignorant and dismissive statements about 3rd trimester abortions. In response, several women stepped up and told their stories online about their late term abortions. I read some of them, and it got me thinking.

The pro-life movement likes to frame abortion in terms of morality. I’m not altogether in disagreement with them, even though I draw incredibly different conclusions. I think first trimester abortions are a no-brainer, since they generally happen before the blastocyst/embryo/fetus has developed anything that could be termed ‘personhood.’ However,  I have in the past been on the fence about whether or not abortions in the third trimester should be legal. But now I have made up my mind.

Consider this situation. A woman is pregnant and is going to to doctor for her 7 month appointment. At this appointment, it is discovered that something is wrong and that child has developed a condition that makes it impossible for it to ever live outside the womb –assuming it even survives to term. Do you think it is morally acceptable to deny this woman the opportunity to choose for herself and her unborn child whether she should abort or to try and go to term?

If you think that denying this woman the choice (maybe even the information that would make the choice possible) is morally permissible, then your morality is clearly very different from mine.

Essentially, the recent news and stories have affirmed to me that yes, abortion should be legal in all trimesters. The right to choose is vital, and moral.

EDIT: Just in case anyone thinks that scenarios such as the hypothetical one I described is unrealistic, check out this story. This is only one true-life scenario, but there are many others like it. Why This Woman Chose Abortion—at 29 Weeks

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Moral Lessons from the Bible: God as the Perfect Father?

I’ve heard at times from non-fundamentalist friends and family that the stories of the Bible are not to be taken literally but that they provide moral lessons. Sometimes I have to wonder what moral lessons and truths they are talking about.

For instance, there is one story in the Bible in particular that honestly and seriously confused me about how a loving father should act. God is presented in the tradition of Christianity I was raised in as the perfect Father, and we were taught that this story happened literally. It is the story of Genesis 3, usually titled “The Fall” or something like that. It’s a bit long and I don’t want to reproduce it here, but if you want to read it you can find it on BibleGateway.com.

The gist of it is that God had told Adam and Eve not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Well, in the KJV “the tree in the midst of the garden”) or else they would die. To made a fairly short story even shorter, Eve is persuaded by the cunning talking snake into taking a bite, and then getting Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. It’s what happens next — and the explanations and rationalizations I was taught — that confused me. Do Adam and Eve die? Well, not right away, but it is presumed that one day they will (the assumption was always that they were immortal before, and now they are mortal even though I don’t think the text actually says that anywhere so I’m not entirely sure if that is part of the story or if it was just “interpreted” into it.)

Anyway, no God doesn’t kill them — not right away anyway. He does worse. He curses them and all of their descendants with hard labor — tilling of the ground for men and painful childbirth for women. God does not only carry out this threat, he compounds it even to the point of cursing all the good things he had created in the previous two chapters.

What does this say about how a perfect father acts toward his children? I was told, and believed, that it means that if a father ever makes a threat to a child to try to ensure obedience and the child disobeys (for any reason) than that father is honor-bound to carry out that threat. If he doesn’t, then the child will lose respect for him, and all sorts of nastiness will supposedly result. In God’s case, it would be a blemish on his spotlessly perfect nature, and we couldn’t have that. It’s just all-important that the children OBEY and face serious and painful consequences if they don’t.

Of course they said if a father is not God, he shouldn’t make terrible threats like that to start with — but then that meant that earthy fathers should not really be like the supposed perfect Father — which I found confusing when I was a kid.

Obedience is the key lesson here — not healthy child development or flourishing, not development of a loving and trusting relationship, not an understanding that just being told to do or not do something is simply not good enough to expect compliance from a young child. And Adam and Eve were like children in this story — not even knowing good or evil before they ate the fruit. It’s just obedience based on “do what I say, or I will hurt you” that God expected from them.

There is also a related lesson that reaching for knowledge and understanding is wrong. That trying to understand why an act is good or evil, rather than simply obeying for it’s own sake, is sinful.

Are these good moral lessons? I don’t think they are.

Or it could just be a ancient myth with no real moral lesson to teach. A just-so story from people who live a long time ago to explain why life is so hard. In fact, I have a idea that is exactly what it really is.

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Don’t need God to tell us what is good

“How do you know what is good without God?”

This is a question that one of the visitors to the Louisville Atheists booth at the Ky State Fair asked me after he read our banner slogan “Millions are good without God!” It was not hard for me to come up with a quick answer. “We define ‘good’ in human terms. We don’t need a God to tell us what is good.”

I’d like to expand on that answer a bit. After spending 10+ years as an atheist, it still shocks me a bit that some religious people seem to think we require supernatural revelation to tell us what is good.  When you eat a delicious and satisfying meal, do you need someone to tell you that it is good? When you feel wonderful about yourself after helping someone in need, do you need someone to tell you that your action was good? If you are angry and lash out at another person in your anger, do you need supernatural revelation to tell you that your action was not good?

I think not, and it doesn’t matter if you believe in any gods or not. We know that there are certain things and actions that bring love, and happiness, and fulfillment, and we call these things “good.” Others bring fear, and hate, and disgust, and we call these things “bad.” A large number of things and actions bring a bit of both good and bad into the world, and there we need to made a judgement call on whether the good is worth the bad.

During my conversation with this state fair visitor, I asked him if he saw any problem in the bad things in the Bible that God reportedly commanded. In particular, about the genocides described against the Amalekites and other “pagans” that God commanded the Israelites to destroy. His answer was the usual “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” and I think this simple yet mind-boggling phrase highlights what Christians means when they say we cannot know what is good without God’s help. Everyone knows that delicious food, funny jokes, and helpful actions are good, but what about all those things we would never guess could be good expect by divine revelation?

Things like:

  • Genocide (1 Samuel 15)
  • Sexism (1 Corinthians 11:7-12)
  • Homophobia (Romans 1:18-32)
  • Blood Sacrifice (recurring theme, specific examples probably not needed)
  • Substitutionary atonement, or the punishment of an innocent victim to pay for the wrongdoings of the guilty. (See also: scapegoating). This is the theological principle underlying the Christian notion that Jesus “died for our sins.”
  • Hell (need I say more?)

Even today, on the fringes of Christianity, there are parents who sincerely believe it is bad to take their sick child to the doctor, and good to beat their child for disobeying them.

There are things that under normal circumstances, any reasonably intelligent and honest person would see as harmful and bad. However, when it is presented to a person as part of their inherited or chosen religious tradition, that person will absolutely bend over backwards to justify these things and make them “good.” After all, God’s ways are higher, right?

So, we don’t need a God or any authority outside our own minds (individually or collectively) to tell us what is good, unless there is some motivation to present things that are really bad as good.

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Why I am an Atheist: Secular Morality vs. Divine Command

Why I am an Atheist: Secular Morality vs. Divine Command

What makes an action good or bad (or neutral)? Atheists are asked by theists, quite frequently, where we get our morals. However, I think that the Biblical theist has a much harder time when it comes to morality than the atheist. This dilemma for the theist is most elequantly stated by Plato as Euthyphro’s dilemma: Is something morally good because it is commanded by God, or is it commanded by God because it is morally good? (my paraphrase. Click the linked text for further detail.) Unlike the Divine Command theory of morality, which states that moral duty comes from God’s or a god’s command regardless of how an act or belief looks in light of secular reason.

The Biblical story that is most cited in discussions about secular morality vs Divine Command morality is the one where God commands Abraham to kill his one and only son as an offering. If you are not familiar with the story, I recommended the illustrated version of The Brick Testament here: God Demands Child Sacrifice. So, if God were to tell you to kill your child, what would be the proper response? According to Divine Command theory, which is championed in the Bible, it is to not question God’s will but to do whatever it is he said. (That Isaac was spared at the end is irrelevant, because Abraham clearly fully intended to carry out the command and was considered righteous for that reason. ) According to secular morality, which is generally followed in modern cases such as that of Andrea Yates, the proper response if you think God wants you to kill your child (or anyone’s child!) is NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT! And it appears that most Christians that are put to the question actually agree with secular morality on this one.

The modern version of the Divine Command theory that I encounter most often comes from self-proclaimed “Biblical” Christians who believe in the authority of the Bible as the final say in all matters of morality. To an unbeliever like me, who does not trust the men who wrote the literature that came to be included in the Bible, nor the counsels of men who determine which of these writings would be considered as authoritative scripture, this assertion is absurd to the highest degree. However, there are plenty of people who, for whatever reasons, still consider the Bible to be a source of authority.

A recent prime example of this is found in the political debate over the issues of homosexuality and gay marriage. Conservative Christian politicians like,  every single GOP primary candidate, is pounding on this issue that homosexuality is a “sin” and that gay couple should not be allowed to marry or raise kids or adopt kids for really no reason whatsoever other than what they believe religiously. (Or, to be more accurate, what they think their voters believe religiously.) All of the studies that have been put forth to say that kids raised by homosexuals are harmed in some way have been exposed as the crap that they are, as pointed out most eloquently by  Al Franken (see Sen. Al Franken Slams Focus On The Family During DOMA Hearing and watch the video). The motivations here are purely religious and political. This is what it looks like when a “Biblical” idea of morality is put ahead of human happiness and autonomy, and above the wellbeing of kids who would otherwise be adopted into a loving home.

This example of how “Biblical” Christian morality to be out of step with modern society and rational morality is one more reason why I am now an atheist.

For further reading on the contrast between theistic moral beliefs and humanism, and a talk on why secular morality is superior to “Biblical” morality, see the links below.

American Humanist Associations Consider Humanism Campaign

Atheist Community of Austin: The Superiority of Secular Morality

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